There's something magnetic about John the Baptist. Based on his description in the Bible and the words he says there, we have a picture of someone smelly and dirty with wild unkept hair, dressed in animal skins. He came from the wilderness where he lived on locusts and honey. He seems to shout a lot, he’s frequently angry and is often critical of others. He demands repentance and, when he proclaims that the kingdom of God is near and that one mightier than he is coming, it sounds more like a warning than encouragement. His description of that mightier one as someone who will separate the wheat from the chaff and bring unquenchable fire sounds more fearful than inspiring.
And yet, crowds come to hear him and be baptized by him and to follow him. People seemed to really be paying attention to him. Although, that ultimately lost him his head.
Still, I was thinking that I'd change my style and start preaching like John the Baptist. I won't bathe, I'll grow my hair out (what's left of it) and I'll wear animal skins. And I'll yell at people a lot, maybe even call them "a brood of vipers" (Matthew 3:7), and threaten them with judgement and unquenchable fire. I'll pass on the bug eating, that would be gross, but I do like honey. I could probably get my own TV show.
Or be put away.
The thing is, look past the presentation and consider why people listened to John. Because that’s our dilemma of discernment: did people listen because John preached fear or because John preached truth? Many "preachers" today present us with that same dilemma, minus the crazy behaviour and animal skins. Mostly. The yelling is often still there.
How do you hear John's message? Is it that we should repent and turn to a new way because that way is true or that we should repent and turn to a new way … or else? Is it fear of what could be coming our way or an earthy way to the truth?
I think John had truth and sincerity on his side. His call to repentance and his announcement that something’s coming rang true with people. That's why we hear it in Advent more than other times during the year.
John may easily appear to us as a man "out of time and place,” both by his appearance and by putting him in the weeks leading to Jesus' birth. After all, they were cousins and born months apart. But the words of the adult John calling people to repentance are equally important to the birth of Jesus as they are to his adult ministry.
To repent doesn't mean "sorry," it means to turn away, to make a change, a sea-change of spirit. An old anglican prayer has the best description of repentance as "to turn from your wickedness and live." This Advent season, John steps out of the wilderness to shout at us, calling us to turn aside and come to Bethlehem, to turn from what keeps us from God and discover that God came to us in a distant Christmas past, is coming to us now and will come again, as Jesus promised, in the future.
Far from "out of time," John's message of repentance is for all time.